books, motherhood, reading
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To the River

To the River by Olivia Laing

I was pulled to the Ouse as a magnet is pulled to metal, returning on summer nights and during the short winter days to repeat some walks, some swims until they amassed the weight of ritual. I’d come to that corner of Sussex idly and with no intention of staying long, but it seems to me now that the river cast a lure, that it caught me on the fly and held me heart-stopped there. And when things in my own life began to falter, it was the Ouse to which I turned.
To the River, Olivia Laing

In the summer of 2009, after ‘one of those minor crises that periodically afflict a life’ — the loss of a job, and then a lover — Olivia Laing set out to spend a week walking the length of the River Ouse, forty-two miles from source to sea. The Ouse, ‘a pretty, middling river’ flows through Sussex Weald and Downs and into the English Channel at Newhaven. If it’s famous for anything, it’s for being the river in which Virginia Woolf walked, her pockets filled with stones, in 1941.

The result of Laing’s walk is a beautiful, fluid, meandering work that flows through landscape and time, capturing the magic of midsummer and the sometimes tantalising small gap between the present and the past. She writes of wildflowers and birds, of fossil hunters, battles, heaven and hell; she writes of Virginia Woolf herself. The physical river is just a magnet for the stories that adhere to it, but it’s also the physical river, the water itself, to which Laing seems to succumb, swimming in it, luxuriating in its embrace,

The water looked as if it had been enamelled in little licks of gold and blue […] I staggered forward a couple of steps, feet sinking deep into the clay, and then cast off, chest hammering with cold. Two stokes and it switched to a pleasurable burning, as if each cell were fizzing. I padded out to the lillies and rolled onto my back. There were damselflies skittering in circles above me, their wings a powdery blackened blue that made it seem as if they’d escaped from a fire.

An extra layer: I too remember the summer of 2009. We still lived in London. T had just turned two; I was newly pregnant with the Moose. It was a summer of picnics, of heat, of life with only one small child. I had nearly the whole of August off work. We took our first ever ‘family’ holiday, flying to Italy for the wedding of friends, camping by Lake Maggiore, sleeping in a tiny tent. Swimming in the pool in the morning, the lake in the afternoon. After lunch, T would nap in the tent, and we would sometimes lie on a sarong to rest in the shade. I remember leaning against a tree, reading Divisadero while she slept. Sitting on the floor of the airport waiting for the flight home I felt the Moose kick for the very first time. Strange, the overlaying of my summer on hers, the weight of nostalgia for the relatively recent past.


  1. Love the extra layer, your 2009 summer memories—sounds like a perfectly lovely summer, one worth remembering.

    • Sarah says

      Ah, you’re making me sigh now too. It was pretty blissful. [Though also: mosquitoes; no car = no camping stove or chairs or ability to leave the camp site; crazy heat; falling asleep to Italian dance music each night :-)]

  2. Lovely piece – as always 🙂 And another book for me to add to my list!

    Have you read the poet Ruth Padel’s “Tigers in Red Weather”? I read it several years ago and it’s one of those books that still lingers in the hidden corners of my mind, and your description of “To the River” makes me think of it again. In the aftermath of a relationship breakdown, Padel decides to visit every country in which wild tigers could still be found. Over a two year period, she does so and the result is part natural history (is there still a place for tigers in the wild?), part travel writing and part very personal memoir. It’s beautiful.

    • Sarah says

      No, but that does sound lovely — I’ll have to look out for it. Thank you!

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